Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Joint Committee for Strategic Planning and Transportation representing the Four Unitary Local Authorities in the Former Avon Area (OPT 03)



  The Joint Strategic Planning and Transportation Committee was formed in 1996 by the four unitary local authorities of Bath and North East Somerset Council, Bristol City Council, North Somerset Council and South Gloucestershire Council. This Committee is responsible for strategic planning and transportation, supported by a Joint Strategic Planning and Transportation Unit headed by a Director charged with providing independent advice to the Joint Committee.

  Jointly through the recently adopted Structure Plan the four Councils are seeking to encourage alternatives to the car, recognising the increasing level of road congestion in the area. Improving public transport is a major plank of strategic policy. Strategic priorities are to encourage bus and rail services within the main urban areas of Bristol, Bath and Weston-super-Mare, in larger towns and along a series of inter-urban corridors.


  The Local Transport Plans of the four Councils all foresee increased patronage of bus and rail services, especially at critical peak periods. A crucial issue is whether there is sufficient capacity in the public transport system to accommodate, comfortably and safely, current and future numbers of passengers.

  Bristol City Council's Local Transport Plan and subsequent July 2002 Bus Strategy highlight the capacity problem in peak periods when many inbound buses along major radial routes are already full when they reach the inner city area and further passengers are unable to board. This is experienced for example with buses that run along the A38, A420 and A432 radial routes connecting Bristol's outer suburbs and residential areas of South Gloucestershire with the city centre.

  The ability of local buses to cater for peak passenger loads is dependent partly on the frequency of services and type of vehicles used by the operators; and partly on day-to-day operational problems such as traffic congestion, roadworks and driver shortages. If services are delayed or cancelled or small vehicles used instead of large ones, then the demand for seats can outstrip supply. In evidence to Bristol City Council's Local Bus Services Select Committee the major bus operator First has stressed that the Company "run a large number of vehicles purely at peak times to take account of greater demand". The Company also stated that on some popular routes "we have a number of single decks for which we are unable to secure double deck replacements".

  Whilst buses are allowed under Public Service Vehicle legislation to have certain numbers of "standees", having to stand is not designed to attract people to using public transport. Standing can be particularly uncomfortable in Bristol and Bath with steep hills and stop start driving conditions. Having purchased their ticket bus passengers want, not unreasonably, to have a seat. The local perception is that buses with standing passengers are overcrowded.

  The constraints on local train services are not unlike those on bus services. The capacity of the local rail system to carry peak passenger loads is similarly influenced by the frequency of services and the type of rolling stock available to the train operating companies. Timetabling is affected by the wider issue of network capacity and pressure from the long distance train operating companies for limited numbers of train paths. Rolling stock appears to be in short supply for local services, made worse by concerns about re-franchising and consequent lack of company investment. Like bus services, local trains experience day-to-day operational problems that produce delays and cancellations.

  Delayed, cancelled or short formation trains can lead to uncomfortable conditions for passengers, especially on commuter routes. For example passengers at local stations between western Wiltshire and Bath; Weston-super-Mare and Bristol; and Severn Beach and Bristol are currently experiencing problems of overcrowding. The shortage of serviceable rolling stock for local train services has been recently raised as an issue with the Strategic Rail Authority by the Rail Passengers' Committee (Western England).

  Train services in the Bristol area are dominated by three train operating companies (TOCs). Taking the services provided by these TOCs as a whole, the Spring 2002 National Passenger Survey shows that between 12 and 18% of passengers were dissatisfied with the amount of seats/standing space. In their Passenger Charter Wessex Trains, the operator of most local services, aim to ensure that passengers will not have to stand for more than 20 minutes during their journey but acknowledge that "there will be occasions where demand for a service exceeds our expectations or available resources and may cause you to stand for a longer period of time". Examples of overcrowding are not as obvious as on commuter routes in the South East, where the Strategic Rail Authority's Passengers in Excess of Capacity (PIXC) measures apply, but nevertheless local people do perceive some services as offering an unacceptably low level of passenger comfort.

  Public perception of buses and trains as being overcrowded, added to criticisms of unreliability and poor timetabling, undermines the Councils' policy of promoting public transport in order to create a modal shift from car use. Unlike metropolitan areas, where private car use for many journeys is often impractical, people in and around Bristol who have access to a car can easily be discouraged from using public transport by negative views of poor journey experiences.


  Bus Quality Partnerships (BQP) offer the opportunity for creating an improved climate for operations and enhancing perceptions about bus travel. In their role as highway authorities the Councils can help bus reliability by providing bus priorities and the better planning of roadworks. Unlike in Scotland, the Transport Act 2000 does not allow service frequencies to be included in BQPs and increasing capacity to meet demand will rely on the bus companies' commercial decisions. One possibility being explored in Bristol is the development of new "limited stop" express services to serve outer suburbs and supplement local "stopping" services catering for demands in the inner suburbs.

  The development of "showcase routes" will hopefully lead to investment in new vehicles and higher frequencies to cater for peak demands. Double deckers are prominent in Bristol and First aims to introduce more on "showcase routes". In Bath two operators have achieved higher capacities by introducing articulated buses. The provision of most new vehicles however depends on the wider fleet investment decisions of the major bus group, First and the extent to which local management aspirations can be aligned with centralised vehicle purchasing.

  Opportunities for reducing overcrowding on the Bristol area rail system in the short term are limited by problems in obtaining additional rolling stock for local services. The Councils hope that this issue will be properly taken into account in the current negotiations for a 2 year extension of the Wessex Trains' franchise from 2004 to 2006 prior to the letting of the new "Greater Western" franchise.

  It is also hoped that the SRA's forthcoming route capacity strategies will recognise the importance of local rail services when train paths are being reviewed. Whilst longer trains are a possibility, there is still the need for more frequent services. Sufficient paths must be identified for local services to ensure that increases in frequency can be achieved to cater for future growth in patronage and thereby avoid overcrowding.


  Both bus and rail services in the Bristol, Bath and Weston-super-Mare areas have overcrowding problems at peak periods. Local Authorities through their Local Transport Plans want to see a modal shift from cars to public transport. More capacity is needed in the local public transport system to overcome existing problems and cater for future growth in bus and rail patronage. Councils can play an important part but bus and rail enhancements will continue to rely heavily on the bus and train operators and the Strategic Rail Authority responding to local needs and demands.

December 2002

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